Sunday, November 06, 2016

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others

Way back, when I was a kid, going to grandmother's village was always a lesson on how "advanced" life in the industrial town was.  The village had no indoor plumbing. Only a few hours of electricity, and even then the low voltage sometimes made candle light more luminous than the incandescent bulbs; the fluorescent bulbs would keep blinking until one of us ended its misery by switching it off.  People in the village looked way poorer. There was no road to speak of, and the bullock-cart was a luxury!

At the same time, I was also aware of how "backward" our industrial town was compared to the big cities of Bombay and Delhi, which I had never been to at that time.  I felt like I was an urchin from the slums whenever we visited a wealthy relative in Madras--they had a huge refrigerator where the yogurt--curd, as we called it--was stored, and it was wonderfully cold to touch when served.  And then there was the fabled America.

Later, in graduate school, I would come to understand these are examples of "spatial inequality."  Highly unequal spaces.  Despite all my personal experiences with spatial inequality, I wonder if things are getting even more lopsided.

Consider this:
As anyone looking to buy a new car these days knows, a number of technologies already cede certain tasks to the vehicle. These include windshield wipers that turn on when they sense rain, brakes that engage automatically when the car ahead is too close, blind-spot detectors, drift warnings that alert the driver when the car has strayed into another lane, cruise control that maintains a set distance from other vehicles, and the ability of the car to parallel park itself. Tesla cars go further. In “autopilot” mode they are able to steer, change lanes, and maintain proper speed, all without human intervention. YouTube is full of videos of Tesla “drivers” reading, playing games, writing, and jumping into the back seat as their cars carry on with the mundane tasks of driving.
How about the following as a contrast, as an example of spatial inequality:
Readers in rich countries may well consider electric lighting mundane. But in northern Rwanda, where fewer than one in ten homes has access to electricity, simple solar systems that do not rely on the grid—and use a battery to store electricity for use at night—are a leap into modernity. A service once available only to rich Africans in big towns or cities is now available for just a few dollars a week.
While we in the advanced countries are celebrating the arrival of driverless cars, and beer trucks that drive themselves, merely getting a bulb to light up a home is a big deal in "a continent in which two of every three people have no access to power."

Take a moment to think about these contrasts. Especially about ""a continent in which two of every three people have no access to power."  And think about how these are merely two of the examples of life in contrast.
Of course, grandmother's village now has roads. But, electricity 24x7 is yet to be the case.  It has been years since I last went there, but it is doubtful whether all the houses have indoor plumbing.  There has been progress, yes, but the spatial contrasts seem much more than before.

The more the years go by, the more difficult it has become for me to understand the world.


Ramesh said...

At the risk of repeating myself for the nth time, this is another area where the greatness of Bill Gates manifests itself. Technologies like the solar example you have quoted, or cheap toilets or effective ways of preventing malaria are being pioneered by the Gates Foundation. That technology can make a vast difference to the quality of life of the people is an idea that has been embraced wholeheartedly both by the Gates and the Dell Foundation.

Mike Hoth said...

I, for one, hate that cars have so many computers in them now. My vehicle is going to last as long as I can keep it running, with its crank windows and *gasp* doors that need to be locked by hand. Most people who ride in that car must be reminded to lock their doors, because cars that lock themselves behind you are mundane. We're far past simple electric lights being mundane, my friend!

It seems almost unfair that so privileged a nation is full of people who cannot comprehend real poverty. It's quite likely that we will soon elect a president who wants to "help the poor" without even a basic understanding of what poor people look like. Many of our "poor" people have indoor plumbing, 24/7 electricity, and internet access.

Of course, it's also quite likely that we'll elect Donald Trump instead, who doesn't understand poverty any better. Perhaps then you will wish to move back to your grandmother's village!

Sriram Khé said...

The point of the post was not about what these technologies can do, or about what the gazillionaires can do. But to remind ourselves about the phenomenally different worlds, almost different planets, that the excitement over driverless beer trucks, and the lack of even a simple light bulb, represent. This gap is not really narrowing, but in relating to my growing up experiences, I believe/worry that the gap is getting wider and wider. With the serious talk of Mars exploration, we are all the more seemingly on the path towards the dystopia that Hollywood fictionalized in Elysium.

Yes, "so privileged a nation is full of people who cannot comprehend real poverty." Romney spoke about the 47 percent, or whatever that number was that he said. But, I am confident that Romney understands poverty, just as much as Obama does. To understand poverty requires empathy. And Trump has no clue about empathy, as he has demonstrated over and over and over again.

Anne in Salem said...

I read an article in National Geographic not too long ago about the changes in life in rural India when solar allows for storage of energy for use later in the day. Significantly, businesses are open later so residents have more income, which, in turn, leads to a bit of economic stimulation. It was quite fascinating.

There seemed to be a trend not too long ago for famous people to try to live on a food stamp budget. Most gave up because they were unable to sacrifice their organic produce or their kindly-raised meat in order to stay in budget. Perhaps that inspired a bit of empathy - and perhaps inspired their children as well.

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